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JET program develops support network for its gay and lesbian teachers in Japan

Stonewall AJET is an LGBT network that has grown from the Japan Exchange and Teaching program
Members of Stonewall AJET at Tokyo's 2012 Pride Parade.

Now in its 26th year, the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program is an international teaching exchange that in 2012 saw over 4,000 teachers from 40 countries travel to Japan to teach languages - making it one of the world’s largest exchange programs.

The Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching (AJET) is the peer support group for JET teachers, and within this framework LGBT support networks have existed in a limited extent since the early 1990s. However in 2011 the current committee of Stonewall AJET came together to revitalize this important network and provide a focus point for information, support and events for the JET program’s LGBT teachers.

I met with Kyle Herrera vice president of Stonewall AJET. We had arranged to meet near the East exit of Shinjuku train station - one of the busiest stations in the world. Kyle was easy to find - exceptionally tall and wearing a pink shirt and green jacket he stood out amongst the sea of Tokyo commuters.

We walked to a nearby Tully’s coffee shop to chat. Young, articulate and enthusiastic, Kyle’s passion for the work of Stonewall AJET was infectious.

How did you first get involved with Stonewall AJET?

The JET program organizes an orientation session with a range of different talks and you can choose which ones you go to. I saw that there was one for LGBT teachers so I went along - the session was presented by representatives from Stonewall AJET.

How does Stonewall AJET engage with teachers who are just joining the program?

Building on the information provided at the orientation session, we organize a social night to show teachers around Nichome - Tokyo’s gay district, just near Shinjuku station.

JET teachers generally aren’t based in Tokyo but they’ll often visit during their time off.

What does Stonewall AJET offer to JET’s LGBT teachers?

The biggest thing is support - we’re always gathering and sharing information about things such as new places, events, support groups and testing centres.

Events are also a big focus for us - whether it’s small local events coordinated by one of our regional representatives or a bigger event such as Tokyo or Osaka Pride March.

How does Stonewall AJET communicate with the LGBT teachers that it’s supporting?

Our Facebook group has rapidly grown to be one of our main ways of communicating - we’ve now got 428 people who are members of our Facebook group.

Is Stonewall AJET restricted to participants in the JET program?

Although Stonewall AJET began life as a support network for JET teachers, it has now grown beyond that and we’re seeing continuing involvement from JET alumni as well as other expatriates living and working in Japan.

What’s it like living as a gay man in Japan - particularly as a foreigner?

The Western views of what a gay person is or should look like don’t really apply in Japan. I find that I can be more myself in Japan.

There’s definitely a greater freedom of expression through the arts and fashion - for example something that I couldn’t wear in Los Angeles wouldn’t draw a second glance in Japan.

It’s almost as if, being a foreigner, people think that you’re weird anyway.

However the majority of our Stonewall AJET members would not be out at work - conversations at work in Japan generally don’t get too in depth about things like your personal life.

For local Japanese people it’s almost a sense of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ - they don’t tend to come out to their families or their work.

What does the future hold for Stonewall AJET?

We continue to see strong support from AJET so we will continue to play an active role in the JET orientation sessions and providing information to our members.

Our membership continues to grow and Stonewall AJET has an important role to play.

Leaving the coffee shop, Kyle took me on a walking tour of Nichome - the gay bar district.

‘It’s a bit like Diagon Alley’, explained Kyle. His Harry Potter analogy was spot-on - ‘it’s all pretty discreet, walking along the main street you’d have no idea where the gay bars are, you almost have to know someone to get in.’

There is quite a distinct separation between the gay bars and the lesbian bars (which are strictly women only).

We stopped for a drink at Dragon bar, it was a quiet Monday night but it was friendly and relaxed and we chatted with the bar manager over our Tequila Sunrises.

Kyle explained that Tokyo’s gay bars are suffering a bit of a decline - location-based technology such as Grindr means that guys no longer have to travel into Nichome’s gay bars in order to meet other guys; plus the government has recently cracked down on any dancing in premises unlicensed for dancing. I didn’t really understand the connection, but according to Kyle this is related to a tightening of control by the Japanese government since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Kyle’s exchange to Japan is coming to end and he will soon be returning to his home in the US, but Stonewall AJET looks set to continue to play an important role in supporting the international LGBT teachers living and working in Japan.

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